On the return flight from his recent trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis offered a wide-ranging press interview. His remarks about large families and responsible parenthood have caused a great deal of confusion and hand wringing. The National Catholic Reporter and USA Today ran headlines claiming the Pope said Catholics had a moral responsibility to limit their family size and should not “breed like rabbits”.
First of all, Pope Francis never used the term “breed like rabbits”. His actual statement was refuting a common misunderstanding of Catholic teaching:
Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.
The Pope went on to emphasize that there are licit ways to limit family size or delay pregnancy when prudence demands such actions. He gave his unqualified endorsement to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. He emphasized the importance of pastoral support for couples as they seek to discern the proper course of action with regards to having children.
In this same conversation, Pope Francis recounted his admonishment of a woman who had delivered seven previous pregnancies by Caesarean section and was now pregnant for an eighth time. He said she might believe she was trusting God, but suggested that in fact she might be testing God.
This phrasing caused many women who have large families to wonder if the Pope was criticizing their choices. Many of them sought to be pregnant in spite of health risks and they heard the Pope’s words as intimating they were inappropriately testing God.
Much of this angst could be alleviated if everyone remembers that Catholic doctrine and teaching do not turn on a single utterance of the Pope. This interview is not an encyclical, an apostolic letter, or even a formal address. It is a conversation. One must look at the entire context.
There are those who believe the Catholic Church demands that couples have as many children as possible with no regard for the wellbeing of the mother or even of the entire family. Pope Francis is speaking to this erroneous perception. He certainly is not being critical of anyone who has prayerfully discerned the decision to have more children even when there are health risks.
Later in the interview Pope Francis specifically discusses the virtue of prudence. I think he is also endorsing this virtue as husbands and wives evaluate their readiness for parenthood.
If a woman has a physical condition that will be seriously impacted by pregnancy, it is irresponsible to ignore possible adverse outcomes and merely say, “God will provide.” We would never recommend a cancer patient refuse to look at any treatment options and rely solely on Divine Providence.
God gave us the gift of our intellect and we are expected to use it. Similarly, the Pope is saying a husband and wife should evaluate all options and determine the best path for their particular family at this particular time. The Holy Father repeatedly said that there must be support from both clergy and lay organization for this discernment process.
Soon we will be entering Lent, and we will hear of Christ’s temptations in the desert. The devil took Jesus to the parapet of the temple, and challenged him to throw himself down since surely God would save him. Jesus replied, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7)
Pope Francis is offering the same counsel. Prudent and prayerful deliberation by a husband and wife, before they make a decision about having children, does not show a lack of faith. Rather it shows that they do have faith in the grace of the sacrament of matrimony. With such grace they can seek to do God’s will. God’s will may be for them to accept the risks of pregnancy. God’s will may be for them to avoid pregnancy.
Once the choice is made it is time to put the decision in God’s hands. They still have no guarantees against an adverse outcome but they do have the confidence that they have aligned themselves with God’s plans. Failure to responsibly consider the decision to have children, especially when there are significant risks, is very much like flinging oneself from the parapet, putting God to the test.